Cameroonians Kept in Limbo over Oil-Rich Peninsula
MUNDEMBA, Cameroon The Cameroonians of the Bakassi Peninsula have learned like many other communities that the prospect of oil can be more of a curse than a blessing.
For years, thousands of them have been unable to live on their land because of a fierce and long-running dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over the territory, fueled by its proximity to the oil-rich waters of the Gulf of Guinea.
When the African countries came close to war over the peninsula in 1996 and Nigeria occupied part of it, thousands of Cameroonians fled to neighboring areas of their country.
They should have been able to return on Sept. 15, when Nigeria was to hand over Bakassi to Cameroon in line with a 2002 International Court of Justice ruling on their common border.
But the handover of the 400-square-mile area of western Cameroon largely made up of mangrove-covered swampland and islands was postponed, officially for "technical reasons."
"For how much longer will we continue to live outside our home and suffer like this?" complained Cornelius Edonde.
Edonde is a mayor without a town. He was in charge of Kombo Itindi in Bakassi before he fled to Mundemba, 25 miles to the north.
"I have no budget to run, I cannot raise taxes, I cannot carry on any development in my council area," he said. "What future are we reserving for our children? All this because of oil."
The U.N. official overseeing the handover has insisted that no one is disputing the territory belongs to Cameroon and he hopes to publish a new timetable soon.
A Nigerian government official said last week that talks aimed at settling a new deadline to transfer Bakassi to Cameroon would be held later this month.
"The Nigerian and Cameroonian mixed commission is meeting on Oct. 21 in Abuja, and the decisions will be taken after that," chief boundary commissioner Dahiru Bobboh said in the Nigerian capital.
Some Cameroonians believe the postponement reflects opposition to the handover by Nigeria. Estimates of the number of Nigerians actually living in Bakassi vary widely.
Nigerian government officials say at least 300,000 Nigerians live in Bakassi. The United Nations says the number can vary from 25,000 to 250,000 as thousands of fishers flock to the peninsula's rich waters at certain times of the year.
For many displaced Cameroonians, the delay after years of haggling was almost too much to bear. On the day the peninsula was meant to be handed over, two women collapsed in tears onto the sofa in Edonde's office when they heard of the postponement.
Assa Erica Mutu, 32, used to be a seamstress in a village in Bakassi with a thriving business.
"But when we heard that the Nigerian army was coming, we started running away. I didn't have time to collect anything," she recalled. Now she does not even have enough money to send her children to school.
Magdalene Pundi, 28, was a busy hairdresser in Bakassi, but now she is a single mother of two struggling to make ends meet.
When things get too difficult, she said, "I am forced to go out with men just to have something to eat."
Locals say the different peoples who occupied Bakassi got on well before foreign powers colonized and divided up West Africa over the past two centuries. Today they say the border has been exploited by post-colonial leaders to stir up conflicts.
"There has been mutual respect and understanding between us Cameroonians and the Nigerians living in Bakassi," said Godwin Okon, a businessman from Idabato on the tip of the peninsula. "We've maintained warm relations, traded with each other, and intermarried," he said. "But now this conflict has put an end to it all, and we are the losers."
Nigerian traders ply the waters between Calabar in Nigeria and the town of Ekondo Titi near Bakassi each week, bringing in consumer goods and taking away cargoes of vegetables, but they complain of harassment by Cameroon soldiers.
The displaced people also complain that the whole Ndian Division, the broader region which includes Bakassi, has been neglected by the central government in Yaounde.
The area produces 90 percent of Cameroon's modest oil output of about 100,000 barrels a day and authorities hope to find much more on Bakassi and in nearby waters yet it is one of the least developed and most inaccessible parts of the country.
With no proper roads, people are forced to use boats or walk to get from one place to another. A Cameroonian telephone network only recently extended to the area.
Bakassi's extended limbo has prompted some Cameroonians to consider radical measures.
"The U.N. should do something very quickly to force Nigeria to respect its international commitment. The best thing would be to impose an embargo on oil exports," said mayor Edonde.